A recent reading of book of James reminded me of the human tendency to compartmentalize ideas, beliefs, experiences, and so on, into their own category, and thus separating their integration. This reminded me of a quote in Screwtape Letters. C.S. Lewis has the veteran demon write this to his nephew: “At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls” (Letter IV). Lewis cleverly reveals the integration of the body, mind and soul – that they are not their own parts, inconsequential of their action towards the rest of the body. The tendency to believe this is to make a grievous error.
James intended to remind readers that faith does not exist without a life of works. Faith and work are two expressions of the same thing: an encounter with the living Christ. Belief and action are not to be separated – to do so would be to live a dematerialized Christianity, and we tend to do this much more often than we think. We become idealists in our beliefs, yet we neglect to speak to the One who is centre of that ideal. More passion is spent on disagreeing with someones theology/ideology than on seeking and praying to the God of grace. This is a dematerialized faith, one that has glorified ideals at the expense of being with the person of Christ.
Moreover, NT Wright has written much about the problem among Evangelicals who have made the Christian hope one of future dematerialization. The belief is that one day, if you are Christian, when you die, or when the ‘rapture’ happens, you will go to heaven. What most people mean by this, is that their “soul” or their “spirit” will go to the sky and live on clouds, and play harp music with Jesus who is of course the worship leader. Thankfully, this is completely wrong.
Though many factors contribute, this is due to a Christian conception of the afterlife that has been overly dematerialized – a separation of body/soul/spirit. This ideal demonizes the material world and glorifies the non material; which Wright argues in Surprised by Hope, leads to a tragic disregard for the present creation. It is an escapist mindset, viewing the current world as totally corrupt and irredeemable, thus placing hope in a disembodied heaven.
The problem is due in large part to a erroneous view of heaven. Wright explains:
‘God’s kingdom’ in the preaching of Jesus refers, not to post-mortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but about God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.10 The roots of the misunderstanding go very deep, not least into the residual Platonism that has infected whole swathes of Christian thinking and has misled people into supposing that Christians are meant to devalue this present world, and our present bodies, and regard them as shabby or shameful.
Likewise, the pictures of heaven in the book of Revelation have been much misunderstood. The wonderful description in Revelation 4 and 5 of the twenty-four elders casting their crowns before the throne of God and the Lamb, beside the sea of glass, is not, despite one of Charles Wesley’s great hymns, a picture of the last day, with all the redeemed in heaven at last. It is a picture of present reality, the heavenly dimension of our present life. Heaven, in the Bible, is regularly not a future destiny, but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life—God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last, he will remake both, and join them together for ever. And when we come to the picture of the actual End in Revelation 21–22, we find, not ransomed souls making their way to a disembodied heaven, but rather the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, uniting the two in a lasting embrace.
Heaven invades earth when God enters creation. Additionally, Wright argues that Easter — the celebration of Christ’s resurrection — is what is under fire in this ideal. The resurrection of Christ has lost its centrality in the Christian hope, it has taken a back seat only to be replaced by an escapist longing for a disembodied heaven.
The consequences are detrimental:
What we say about death and resurrection gives shape and colour to everything else. If we are not careful, we will offer merely a ‘hope’ that is no longer a surprise, no longer able to transform lives and communities in the present, no longer generated by the resurrection of Jesus himself and looking forward to the promised new heavens and new earth (36).
Moreover, the wider implication of this dematerialized hope is the “downgrading of bodies and the created order” which we will one day leave behind (37). Wright notes the historic shift during the 18th century, in which “Evangelicals gave up believing in the urgent imperative to improve society about the same time that they gave up believing robustly in resurrection and settled for a disembodied heaven instead” (38).
The focus of Wright’s book is centred primarily on the resurrection – which rightly provides hope for the conquering of death and the future plan to redeem all of creation. Additionally, what I think we require in this very moment is the beauty of the Incarnation.
“The Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us” (John 1:14).
Surely, John’s readers would have recognized what John was saying about Jesus: he is God in the flesh. God always intended that through the story of Israel, God would restore the brokenness of creation. How? By progressively coming nearer to it – bringing ‘heaven,’ the “God dimension” to creation. The restoration of creation would come as God drew closer to it; through the tabernacle, the temple, and ultimately the Temple who is Christ, and now, by the Spirit, by whom our bodies are made into His temple, and thus through the Church.
The incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection. These are meant to bring restoration to a creation that is under a curse. Not simply a restoration but a fruitfulness and ability to flourish. Like a seed that is planted into the ground, the seed must loose its glory, it must die, for the tree to grow, flourish and provide fruit for the planter. In that way the seed is beautiful and mysterious.
Jesus spoke of himself and his followers when he said, “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).
God enters into his own story by incarnating himself, and beckons us – the church – to enter into his story of the ross, death, burial, and resurrection.
Thus, in this cruciform life – a life shaped by the cross — and by it we begin to behold the beauty of the incarnation; and paradoxically, by embracing the way of the cross, death turns into the blessing of life.
CS Lewis puts it this way: “we do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves.”
Paul’s teaching and life is in step with this:
“…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” – 2 Corinthians 4:10-12
“If we have died with him, we will also live with him.” – 2 Timothy 2:11
“I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” – Galatians 2:20
May the Church grasp the beauty of the story of Christ – the incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection, and be intentional about entering into that story not by idealizing it, nor by escaping the created world, but through lament, prayer, seeking the King, his Kingdom, and his Spirit, to the glory of God. Lord, help our unbelief.